Murder On The Way! (1935) by Theodore Roscoe

Seriously, who would accept a one-way ticket to an isolated mansion in the middle of nowhere for a will-reading? Have they never read a mystery novel before? You know full well that a) there’s going to be a thunderstorm, b) the will is going to have some weird conditions attached to it, and c) murder is most definitely on the cards.

But would-be model Pete and her artist boyfriend, Cartwright, decide that her distinctly unpleasant uncle’s money would be rather nice, and are on the next plane to Haiti. And before you know it, events a), b) and c) have all been ticked off, and a night of peril is on the cards. Oh, and there’s a zombie as well. Zoiks!

Theodore Roscoe wrote, I gather, primarily for pulp magazines and this comes across from the writing. Everything is presented in fast-paced, equal-length chapters, most of which have a murder and a cliffhanger of sorts at the end. At times, with the chaos that the events at the mansion descends into escalates and escalates, you have to wonder if he is going to pull the story off. The murders are frequent, some veering into the impossible crime category, and the killer, is, to be honest, quite guessable – I think there’s really only two other viable candidates – but what appears to be a kaleidoscope of chaos resolves itself neatly into a tidy whole. A massively unbelievable tidy whole – it almost makes And Then There Were None make sense – but if you can accept the ridiculous plan, then it does tie together nicely.

Roscoe had visited Haiti and his descriptive sections are beautifully detailed, and he has a nice line in antagonistic dialogue. But it would be wrong to ignore the elephant in the book. Namely the racism.

Roscoe paints all of his characters with a broad brush, mostly picking on one or two character traits and focussing on them. The German character, who is basically a comedy Nazi, and doesn’t really do anything to reach beyond that label. Similarly the British colonial character. But when the rest of the cast are Haitian natives… well, Roscoe lets himself down by concentrating their skin colour. Roscoe had visited Haiti so it may well be that this was the way people spoke about each other on the island at the time, but it is made very uncomfortable reading. It’s all very well to invoke the Haitian belief in zombies in the plot, but the number of times the word “darkey” is used, primarily in character dialogue, would be difficult for the modern reader to accept, especially as that number is more than zero. And that is by no means the only word that is used in a racial way. These characters, rivals fighting over an inheritance, are meant to be unpleasant, but the language used to describe them is not something that I enjoyed reading.

It’s a real shame, as I think without it, this would be a much more popular book. The pace is strong and the plot is clever, and fans of the pulpy action-mystery genre will find much to enjoy here. But the reader will have to choose to look past the datedness of some of the attitudes. I leave it to the reader whether they want to make that choice or not.

Just The Facts, Ma’am: WHY – Zombies and racial stereotypes makes it doubly Out Of My Comfort Zone

4 comments

  1. I was appalled by the racism in this book. The Haitians are continuously referred to as darkeys/negroes/black/dark/swarthy/whatever .
    In our locality there are 2 stray dogs which have become friendly with the people. One is black and the other brown. They are referred to as blackie and brownie (in local language).
    More degrading terms are used in the book. One character is referred to as ‘half a ton of charcoal’. Another as ‘gorilla’ ,

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  2. Murder on the Way is a fast-paced, sometimes bewildering, flight of fancy and loved every page of it!

    But you might find Roscoe’s speculative I’ll Grind Their Bones a more interesting and rewarding read. Roscoe places a pulp-style locked room mystery in the middle of the destruction of the Second World War, but the book was published in 1936! I can also warmly recommend Four Corners, a collection of crime-themed short stories originally published in Argosy, which take place in a small American town that may have been the inspiration for Ellery Queen’s Wrightsville and Shinn Corners.

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  3. Hmm. This has been on my radar for a while, never quite making it to the TBR, ie an actual purchase. I am not usually over bothered by casual bits of racism in older books, where it peeks through as it were, rather than being reveled in. But this sounds more like Lovecraft, where it seems the reader is invited and expected to share the prejudices.

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    • “But this sounds more like Lovecraft, where it seems the reader is invited and expected to share the prejudices.”
      You are correct !

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